The state Board of Higher Education will be deciding whether to switch from monthly to quarterly meetings. The Tribune Editorial Board doesn’t mind the board changing its meeting schedule if it can be as efficient.
We do have reservations about some of the suggestions offered for handling the workload if the board changes to quarterly meetings. Frankly, the suggestions appear to be ways to skirt open meetings and avoid the public. That would be a mistake, especially for a board that has been the focus of controversy over the years and has been scolded for violating open meeting laws.
Don Morton, chair of the board, says the switch to quarterly meetings is being considered because monthly meetings have resulted in excessive travel by board members. He said some monthly meetings have light agendas and more time is spent traveling than doing actual business. That’s no doubt true, but do you switch to quarterly meetings or try meeting every other month?
Morton told the Forum News Service the quarterly meetings could be complemented by digital meetings to be held on an as-needed basis. If the board did this there would need to be sufficient notification to the public of the meetings and convenient ways for the public to participate in the digital meetings.
He also suggested the board could increase the number of committees doing work between meetings and possibly give them more work. The problem the Tribune has with this is that committee work often goes unnoticed by the public and the public doesn’t have the time to attend additional meetings. There’s also the danger that the board will rubber stamp the work of committees and issues won’t be fully discussed at regular board meetings. It can be a way to get around dealing with issues at meetings where most members of the public are in attendance.
Morton said committee work would allow the board to use a more streamlined consent agenda. A consent agenda translates into no discussion. The public has no way of knowing how a decision was reached and its impact.
Along with the switch to quarterly meetings, the board is considering holding all meetings in Bismarck. Under the present system, the board meets in communities with one of the schools in the higher education system. This change means fewer people would see the board in action.
Under the quarterly proposal the board members wouldn’t see each other as often. Morton has a solution for that problem: social events the night before board meetings.
"We'll also make sure we do something together socially the night before," he told the Forum. "That would be healthy for us, as far as relationships go, so people have a chance to mingle on an informal basis with board members and presidents."
The board did something similar to that a few years ago and questions were raised over whether the social events were used to conduct business. It would seem the same questions could be raised about the type of events suggested by Morton.
The Tribune appreciates the work that board members do. They are often subject to criticism from many sides: faculty, students, parents and legislators. Board members, however, asked for the jobs. They applied and they should have had a good idea of the work and travel involved in being on the board. If they think they can change the meeting structure and be as efficient, that’s fine.
It shouldn’t come at the expense of open meetings that feature frank discussions of the issues facing the board. It shouldn’t result in making it more difficult for the public and stakeholders to attend the meetings. It shouldn’t come at the expense of the board delegating work to committees that often go unnoticed. And it shouldn’t be an excuse for the board to do business at social events.
The board needs to give a lot of thought to the switch in meetings before doing it.